Is it wrong to be racist or to talk racist?

Donald Sterling, the false eyes he uses to distract predators, and the false friend to distract death

Donald Sterling, the false eyes he uses to distract predators, and his false friend to distract death

New York Times ethicist Chuck Klosterman recently fielded a question about why, exactly, we were so pleased to see Donald Sterling stripped of his franchise rights by the NBA. Is it because he thinks in a racist manner, as his recorded comments revealed, or is it because he said those racist comments aloud? In the question of whether it is wrong for Sterling to have racist thoughts or merely wrong for him to speak them, Klosterman opts for both. It’s a carefully reasoned answer, as usual, but it declines to address a larger question—perhaps wisely. To wit: if we accept that racism is bad, is it only unethical to express or act upon racist ideas? Or are the very thoughts themselves immoral?

This question is in some ways the Schrödinger’s Cat of ethics. How can we say that a person’s ideas are one thing or another without some outward manifestation of them? If Donald Sterling never said or did anything racist—never provoked any housing discrimination lawsuits or said anything crazy about Magic Johnson—could he meaningfully be said to be racist?

The answer is yes, but only from his perspective. Unlike the rest of us lucky bastards, Donald Sterling experiences his own interiority. When he looks at a Korean person and thinks “this guy will live in whatever conditions I give him,” he experiences a phenomenon the rest of us would call racist, even if he might not. Question two: can he help it?

That’s an important consideration, because I submit that the distinctive feature of modern ethics is that we don’t punish people for things they cannot control. A major premise of the argument that homosexuality should not be persecuted, for example, is that people cannot control their sexual orientations. We may punish the mentally ill or the disabled for certain crimes, but we do not punish them in the same way as people who possess full agency. Unlike our ethically benighted ancestors in the Middle Ages, who routinely punished people for their physical and mental handicaps, we make agency a prerequisite for ethical judgment.

Except sometimes we don’t. Sexual attraction to children is an example of an impulse we find so repellant that we often punish those who confess it, even if they haven’t acted upon it. It is not enough to refrain from molesting kids; society demands that we not want to molest kids, which is an anomaly in our ethical schema. The only other areas of thought/behavior I can think of toward which we take that attitude are patriotism and racism.

Racism is a way of thinking. It manifests itself in actions, such as not renting apartments to black people or telling your girlfriend not to take pictures with Magic Johnson, but those actions express a system of belief. If Donald Sterling didn’t think black people attracted vermin, he probably would be glad to take their rent money. His racist behavior is a consequence of his belief that he will derive advantage from not treating black people fairly; for a contrapositive, consider his willingness to hire several black men to play on the Clippers.

If Sterling’s racist behavior and bozo remarks are a consequence of what he has come to believe about the world—i.e., black people smell—is he unethical or merely mistaken? Followup question: if you believe something that empirical evidence and overwhelming consensus hold to be untrue, do you become not just factually but ethically wrong?

It seems clear that we as a culture have decided that Donald Sterling is ethically wrong to be so racist. I agree with that decision, even if I can’t quite parse why. It doesn’t jibe with our generally volition-based approach to ethics. Perhaps, in the modern age, there is an ethics not just of action but of understanding.

We make a lot of decisions collectively. Global warming is an example of an issue where ignorance or obstinate disbelief affects so many other people as to shade over from epistemology into ethics. Maybe racism is another. Donald Sterling can’t help what he believes about black people, I guess, but he’s had ample opportunities to change his mind. Meanwhile, his wrong ideas have affected lots of people. In this context, his incorrect ideas re: the races constitute a kind of negligence.

Perhaps, in an age that offers individuals both unprecedented access to information and unprecedented capacity to influence others’ lives, believing in manifestly stupid ideas is unethical. If you want to scare yourself, consider that maybe the stakes are too high now for us to stay out of one another’s heads.

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